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September SPSPotlight: Beyond the Ivory Tower

Beyond the Ivory Tower: Interning in Industry

 By Liz Keneski, GSC Past President

Until about a year ago, I had only one dream and anticipated career track—academia. But as the fifth year of my Ph.D. program grew closer, I started to weigh out my wants and needs (e.g., career stability, the opportunity to do great science, work-life balance) with the future hurdles I had coming up (e.g., a post-doc or two, cross-country moves, the tenure clock). I decided I needed to have all the information about all the potential careers I could embark on before making a final commitment to going on the academic job market. So, I applied for and was selected for an internship in the mysterious (to most of us) area of industry research at a large technology company in Silicon Valley, CA. Below, I share the assumptions I held about industry jobs before I interned and the reality I observed or experienced while I interned. (Please take these observations with a grain of salt as one intern’s experiences at one company.)

Assumption: Industry jobs are less competitive to get than academic jobs.
My reality: I interviewed FIVE times to get the internship. And watched many highly qualified prospective job and internship candidates interview and not be selected for positions. Social-personality psychologists certainly have the skills that these companies are looking for in researchers, but my advice would be to take the interview process very seriously if you’re interested and to prepare fully beforehand, including seeking advice from S and P psychologists who work in industry.

Assumption: You’ll be told what to study and how to study it.
My reality: Much like academic research, I was guided by mangers, mentors, and project leaders as to what the most important research questions might be and how to prioritize them, but I ultimately made the decisions about which questions to pursue, when, and I entirely independently designed and executed my studies, analyses, and presentation of results.

Assumption: It’s a 9-5 job.
My reality: The researchers in industry work HARD. And whereas work-life balance is definitely valued and respected, passion for science and projects is, of course, still pervasive in the industry research community and thus, researchers work long hours (and sometimes strange hours).

Assumption: The research will be less rigorous than academic research.
My reality: The research methods and statistics are EXTREMELY similar to academic research. Research tends to move much more quickly in industry so you may not be replicating every effect five times, but rigor was not an issue whatsoever from what I observed. Constructive critiques from fellow researchers aid in making sure studies are effectively addressing research questions.

Assumption: Skills like teaching and mentoring are useless.
My reality: Informal and formal mentorship is central to the research process in industry. Career-long learning is highly encouraged, and not knowing a concept or skill is nowhere near taboo—it’s just something you haven’t been exposed to yet. So, there are certainly opportunities for teaching if you have a skill to share. I even taught a Methods class during my internship!

Assumption: No more publishing.
My reality: Researchers that want to publish do—one to a few papers a year in high-quality journals. Time for writing papers can be incorporated into one’s work schedule, and collaborators are easy to find.  

Assumption: So long to conferences.
My reality: You can continue going to your “home” conferences and there are so many more to explore! Attendance and/or presentations are encouraged. Plus…  travel and registration is usually fully funded! That’s right… I said FULLY. FUNDED.

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